Did you know that the word networking dates all the way back to the 16th century? Back then a network was anything put together using wires or threads. In the 1800s, the word was used to talk about American transportation systems. In the early 1900s, networking meant grouping radio and television programs together. As the 20th century moved forward, interconnected computers were called “networks.” In the 1980s, networking took on the definition that’s familiar to most of us today: to exchange information or services among people, groups, and institutions (Merriam-Webster 2021).
Even though the definition has changed multiple times since the 16th century, there’s a theme that’s common with every definition: connection. Technology has allowed us to automate almost everything, but it can’t replace the power of human connection.
How do you feel about networking? It’s a concept that evokes varying emotions and responses. Some people associate it with sales and look at it negatively. Networking may feel rehearsed or fake to them. Others know they need to do it and even want to do it—but don’t know where to start. They’re overwhelmed by it and maybe even uncomfortable with it. These feelings are natural and normal. But how do you get past them so you can start?
There are practical steps you can take, but first—it’s important to reframe how you view networking. Think about it this way: every person has unique gifts and abilities, and no one person has every skill, talent, or depth of experience. We’re all better equipped to be our best and do our best when we’re connected to other people. Keeping this perspective will help you approach networking with a positive mindset, which will set you up for success.
Here are five practical steps to help you get started:
- Identify your goal. Are you trying to find a job? Looking for a group of like-minded professionals? Selling a product or service? Searching for a mentor? Promoting a book? If you don’t set a goal, networking will never happen. Decide what your primary purpose is for networking, write it down, and revisit it often to help keep you on track.
- Set the time aside to do it. How much time you spend will probably be driven by your goal. If you’re looking for a job, you’ll probably spend more time networking that someone who has an established career but is looking for a mentor. Block off time on your calendar and commit to it.
- Create a plan. How will you spend the time you’ve set aside? This may change from week to week. You might use it to find in-person events, Facebook groups, or to make connections on LinkedIn. You can also use the time to follow up with contacts you already have. Before each week starts, create an outline of what you’re going to do based on your priorities and needs for that week.
- Find, join, or build groups with similar interests. One easy way to venture into networking is to look for groups who share similar interests and career pursuits. Choose keywords for an online search based on your goal. If you’re networking to find a job or meet professionals in your industry, search for groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to make connections. If you’re still in college, use the alumni directory to find people in your field or build connections with your classmates or at events hosted by the college.
- Organize and document your connections. Some people use the Contacts app on their phone to keep track of their contacts, others use digital notes apps, or apps specific to networking. Simply note the person’s contact information and other details such as where you met, or who introduced you. Jot down the date and something personal or helpful they shared with you or even a need they have. It doesn’t matter if you have all their contact info to start. Document a first and last name and a few details.
What Skills Are Required For Networking
When I first started working in business, I thought “I don’t have the personality for networking.” The last thing I wanted to do was go to a “mixer” before a trade show and meet people, but I gradually learned that networking is less about personality and more about mindset and attitude. Once I recognized its value, I was willing to develop the skills I needed to make networking a success for me and the people I connect with. There are four essential skills for networking, and you probably have most of them but just haven’t thought about using them to network:
- Initiative: The goal of networking is mutual benefit, so you can’t just take—you have to give and giving requires initiative. This can happen in a variety of ways. When you connect with people on social media, make the effort to comment on their posts and congratulate them on their wins. If you discover two people in your contacts who could benefit from an introduction, reach out and introduce them. Reach out if you see a job posting and know someone who could be a perfect fit.
- Risk-taking: Some might argue that risk-taking is strictly a component of personality type, but it’s actually a skill you can develop if you’re mindful of it. When you network, not everyone will reciprocate and not everyone will engage. People are busy, and human—they’ll drop the ball and forget to get back with you even though they said they would. Accept that none of these actions are personal rejections. To establish meaningful connections, you’ll have to take some risks.
- Communication: We all know that communication means exchanging information, but that includes listening and asking questions. Communicate your needs clearly and communicate your ability to help someone clearly. Be willing to adapt your communication preferences. Maybe you prefer email but someone else prefers a video meeting or phone call. Be flexible.
- Follow-up: When you follow up with someone, you’re saying, “You’re valuable. You’re important.” If you meet someone at an in-person or virtual event and exchange information, shoot the person an email within a week after meeting. This helps strengthen your connection. If you tell an established contact that you’ll take care of something like a referral or an introduction—do it. Failure to follow up damages connections and your credibility.
Tips to Sharpen Your Networking Skills
Once you’ve established a schedule, rhythm, and have the basics down, there are three tips that will help keep your networking skills sharp:
- Be mindful: Remember that connection and community are at the heart of networking. Build and nurture relationships, and don’t take more than you give. Even if you’re not the right resource to help someone, stay alert so you can match resources to needs.
- Be consistent: Whether you’re networking daily, weekly, or monthly—stay the course. It’s a long-term investment. What you need and are offering will change over time so keep building your connections.
- Be curious: Once you’ve been networking for a few years, the process may start to feel stale. Remember to stay curious. People have interesting stories, reasons for lobbying ideas or speaking out against them, special interest groups they support and reasons why. The list goes on. Don’t assume you’ve learned all there is to learn about your existing connections or that there are no more connections to be made.
Networking isn’t a onetime event: it’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, but it’s worth it! It helps people get jobs, close sales, raise money or awareness, find mentors—and friends. Networking creates opportunities and helps people overcome challenges. As with many things in life and work, the first step is always the hardest, but it’s one you won’t regret taking.